Sunday School Stories

April 4, 2015

Maybee’s Stepping Stones by Archie Fell is a book of Sunday school stories for each week of the year. As I read it, I experienced a wide range of emotions — love, kindness, patience, life, death, naughtiness, guilt, fear, consequences, tolerance, forgiveness, family, community, happiness, sorrow, adversity, hope, loneliness, sadness, joy….

frontispiece

I gasped with alarm when Dick shot himself; when Tryphosa was overcome with the fire. I wanted to cry when Dick lay in the woods unheard, when Phosy and Aunty McFane became ill, and I rejoiced when Mrs. Harte and Bill Finnegan went to the Sabbath School, and when Dan Harte resolved to overcome his addiction to alcohol. I shared the children’s frustrations as they struggled with doing the right thing, and smiled unashamedly when their good deeds worked near miracles.

The stories may be old-fashioned, and based on Christianity, but the lessons are for us all, whether we believe in a god or not, whether our deeds are in person or via social media, whether we are young or old. We can all put out a hand in comfort and together we can grow in strength no matter what our trials and tribulations.

She had just been reading a chapter in the Bible out loud, and Aunty McFane said there was a promise for every ache she had. Isn’t it funny,” he  continued, turning to Miss Marvin, “that folks just as different as can be find exactly what they want in the Bible? — Maybee’s Stepping Stones, page 224.

Reading these stories, I couldn’t help but reminisce about when I was a little girl going to Sunday school.

Denomination meant nothing to us so the church we attended was the one within walking distance — I think it was Presbyterian. Our parents didn’t seem particularly religious, but they did make us go to Sunday school. Our father had in mind that if we weren’t christened it would be easier for us if we wanted to marry someone of strong faith in a particular church.

I never did work out my father’s beliefs. I suspect my mother was quite devout, although I did not know her to go to church, and she didn’t speak about religion much. She did go to a Catholic primary school — she had me shocked and in fits of laughter when she told me of the time she had to stand in front of an open fire with a piece of soap in her mouth because she had sworn at the nuns.

…  then she tried scrubbing the inside of his mouth with soap-suds — Maybee’s Stepping Stones, page 19.

My sister only recently told me the story of her second son who, at age six, when admonished for swearing, was threatened with a similar fate of having his mouth washed out with soap. The little boy went to the bathroom, grabbed some soap, foamed it up in his mouth, and went out to his mother and said, “Now I can swear.” I think there’s quite a bit of my mother’s determined spirit in both my sister and my nephew. The same son said to my sister the other week: “Do what you want, mother, you will anyway.”

My mother also told the story of a family member who was a Major in the Salvation Army. I heard her say many times that only the good die young. And I learnt that she had a very difficult time accepting the death of a daughter before I was born.

Upon the pine coffin, the girls in Miss Cox’s class laid a wreath of beautiful hot-house flowers; but all over the lid, and inside, around the pale face and over the white robe, were fresh, fragrant pond-lilies, their subtile perfume filling the room. — Maybee’s Stepping Stones, page 149.

We had Sunday School stories, much like those told in Maybee’s Stepping Stones. We collected a stamp for each story lesson we attended. When our stamp sheet was full, we were presented with a little book.

We had our “Sunday best” clothes, and how we did love dressing up, putting on our delicate little dresses with ribbons and bows, and polishing our little shoes. Going to Sunday school was exciting and something to look forward to. It added a purpose to our lives, spiritual and social.

But she made her appearance, bright and early, Sabbath morning, comparatively quite docile, submitted to be washed, shampooed, braided, and ruffled, with a most martyr-like air, and came out from the process not so very unlike the five other girls, among whom Say seated her, with such a happy look in her own blue eyes. Just to see her sitting there more than repaid the trouble. — Maybee’s Stepping Stones, page 106.

Our Sunday school was at the back of the church in a prefabricated corrugated steel “Nissen hut” like those used for temporary accommodation during the war years. The building is still there but it is no longer a church, and the hut has been replaced by a brick addition attached to the main building.

I mentioned above it was within walking distance. Back then, there was a church nearby almost everywhere. I thought about this in recent years when a neighbour who had become almost housebound because of poor vision and declining mobility told me that one of the things she missed most was being able to walk to church. Her old church building was still there, too, at the end of the street where she had lived most of her adult life, along with the convent buildings that had been converted first to a school, and then to an art gallery, and now left to crumble. The nearest church for her was now on the other side of town. Buses don’t run on Sundays in this small community so, with few friends or family interested in taking her to church, she had only television services to comfort her.

So much inward soul searching from a little children’s book — literary merit?… Well, the stories stand up to the test of time, is all I can conclude.

This post was contributed by a DP volunteer.


Christmas: Then and Now

December 10, 2014

Copyright restrictions prevent Distributed Proofreaders from working with recent publications so, by the very nature of what we do, we constantly look back towards the past and compare our present circumstances with reports of similar experiences from times gone by.

Now that the Christmas season is upon us, I wonder if the Christmas spirit has been the same in past times, if people a hundred and fifty years ago had a similar spirit or performed similar practices in their Christmas festivities as we do today.

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This came to my mind when post-processing Christmas Stories from French and Spanish Writers, by Antoinette Ogden, an anthology published originally in Chicago, in 1892, containing nine French and six Spanish tales, translated into English, and written several decades earlier. In these fifteen stories I found features that were similar to, and others that were a bit different from, our present way of celebrating Christmas.

Religious practices, Catholicism being the main religion of both France and Spain, are evident in most of these tales. Where religion is not present, Christmas appears more like a social event. In the French tale “I Take Supper with My Wife,” by Gustave Droz, the central point is how charming it is to have a quiet Christmas dinner at home, when it was expected to be had outside in a social gathering. And in the delightful story of Alphonse Daudet, “The Three Low Masses,” the crux is the clash between religious observance and gluttony.

In fact, Christmas is a traditional time for gluttony. Food is present in most of the French tales, but not in the Spanish ones, which usually depict less affluent people. Gift giving is not central in any tale, and there are many in which the idea of gift giving is totally absent (what a difference from the consumerism of our own times!). Christmas trees are not to be found, except very tangentially in a Spanish tale when describing the habits of an upper-class family. Christmas mangers are far more common, and even the yule log is to be found in the very title of the French tale “The Yule Log,” by Jules Simon, and also mentioned in the Provençal form of cacho fio, in Daudet’s sad tale, “Salvette and Bernadou.”

One thing that surprised me is the deep dramatic content in tales that are expected to be gentle, full of optimism, and suitable for children. In half of the tales of this collection, death is present, usually at the end. But in Benito Pérez Galdós’s “The Mule and the Ox,” it is present at the very beginning, most of the tale happening around a child’s coffin. Nevertheless it is a gentle story, where fantasy and dream, the more child-like properties of a tale, do soften and brighten the raw sadness of the scene.

Fantasy and dream play a principal part in many of the other stories too. “A Christmas Supper in the Marais,” by Daudet, is no more than a dream of what a Christmas Eve party would have been in pre-Revolution times among the French nobility. Star characters in “A Tragedy,” by Antonio Maré, and “The Princess and the Ragamuffin,” by Galdós, feature figurines and puppets interacting with humans. And the innards of heaven and hell make their appearance as a result of the fiasco in “The Three Low Masses.”

In all these stories Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas Day, just as in present times. Christmas Eve is pictured as a warm familiar gathering for those in deprived classes, evolving into a more social and public gathering when we move to an upscale world. This is the central point of “The Poet’s Christmas Eve” by the Spanish author Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, where the poet, unwilling to go to the conventional party he is expected to attend, takes refuge in a café where he reflects, to the lyrics of a seasonal carol, on the differences between his childhood and his present adult life.

Being Spanish myself, I was amused to find that the very same carol I used to sing at Christmas when I was a child was in use almost two centuries earlier. In reading the English translation I was able to recall, and hum, the Spanish words:

To-night is Christmas eve;
To-morrow is Christmas day.
Maria, fetch the jug of wine;
Let’s be merry while we may.

Esta noche es Nochebuena
y mañana Navidad,
dame la bota, María,
que me voy a emborrachar.

and:

Christmas comes,
Christmas goes;
But soon we all shall be of those
Who come back — never!

La Nochebuena se viene,
la Nochebuena se va,
y nosotros nos iremos
y no volveremos más.

In my early years, we sang this last stanza with other children in the street as a plea for some coins. The meaning was, “Tip us and we won’t come back again,” that is, we won’t annoy you any more, but the poet makes a very different reading of these last verses:

But soon we all shall be of those
Who come back — never!

Horrible thought! Cruel sentence, the definite meaning of which was like a summons to me,—death beckoning me from the shadows of the future. Before my imagination a thousand Christmas Eves filed by, a thousand hearths were extinguished, a thousand families that had supped together ceased to exist,—other children, other joys, other songs, lost forever; the loves of my grandparents, their antiquated mode of dress, their remote youth, the memories thereof that crowded upon them; my parents’ childhood, the first Christmas celebration in our home, all the happiness that had preceded me! Then I could imagine, I could foresee, a thousand more Christmas Eves recurring periodically and robbing us of our life and hope,—future joys in which we should not all take part together, my brothers scattered over the earth, my parents naturally dying before us, the twentieth century following upon the nineteenth!

How depressing! However, if we use Christmas time to reflect on our own lives, to remember the past, to foresee what is to come, especially if it is not good or amiable, when the future comes it may find us prepared, aware and resolute.

Considered globally, the Christmas festivities in these stories are not so different from ours, even if there are some differences in the detail. What these stories show is that they are not Christmas tales for children, but for grown-ups. That they are not, most of them, tales to be read to the family around a Christmas tree or a Christmas manger, but literary works to be savoured alone; tales not only to be enjoyed but to be reflected upon.

The main components of the Christmas spirit — hope, good will, forgiveness, fair-play with men and God, attention to the weak and the poor, generosity and unselfishness — are indeed present as a central theme. Christmas is a time of year to show the best of ourselves. It was already so in the 19th century. It should be so in the 21st century.

My best wishes for a merry (and thoughtful) Christmas to all members of Distributed Proofreaders.

rpajares (with thanks to jjz for overseeing my English)


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